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Kings’ Laidlaw Won’t Give Up Fight : Hockey: At 33, defenseman says he still can play despite back injury he suffered in March of 1990.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many athletes have successfully jumped from the playing field to the broadcast booth.

But how many have attempted to jump back?

Many athletes have fought to make their team’s roster.

But, to do so, how many have had to fight with their general managers?

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King defenseman Tom Laidlaw, veteran of many a struggle on the ice, has spent 18 months struggling simply to get back on the ice.

After 10 years in the NHL, 7 1/2 of those with the New York Rangers, Laidlaw started having physical problems in Boston Garden on St. Patrick’s Day, 1990. Against the Bruins that afternoon, he suffered what was first announced as a hamstring injury and pulled groin muscle.

Laidlaw never dreamed when he took off his uniform that day that he might never again put it on to play in a game.

The injury was finally diagnosed as a back condition caused by three bulging disks.

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He sat out the rest of the season, then worked through the summer at rehabilitating himself.

When Laidlaw still wasn’t ready at the beginning of last season, he was given an opportunity to stay with the club as Nick Nickson’s radio partner on King broadcasts.

He accepted, but refused to give up his dream of putting his skates back on.

Through rehabilitation, he finally felt well enough by December to test his back by playing for the Phoenix Roadrunners, the Kings’ minor league affiliate.

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At first, it was nirvana. Laidlaw was back on the ice, pain-free. Then, suddenly, it was hell again. Contact with an opposing player, a reach for the puck and that searing pain came shooting back.

Dejected, Laidlaw skated off the ice, months of rehabilitation lost. He was back where he had started on that St. Patrick’s Day. And another year was lost.

He returned to L.A. and again exchanged his stick for a microphone.

But Laidlaw had two more years remaining on his contract, one an option year, at $310,000 a season. A 33-year-old defenseman with a bad back doesn’t have much bargaining power. But Laidlaw figured he was entitled to his full $620,000. For that, he offered to remain behind the microphone for four years for no additional money, in effect saying he would work for $155,000 each of those years.

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“That way, the Kings would get something for their money,” he reasoned.

General Manager Rogie Vachon disagreed. If he can’t play, he doesn’t get paid. Not a penny. Plain and simple.

Neither side is disputing this season’s $310,000. Laidlaw passed his physical and showed up at the Kings’ training camp in the San Bernardino Mountains. At issue is the money for next year, the option year, when Laidlaw is not expected to be around.

“Rogie has already told me I’m not wanted here,” Laidlaw said. “The Kings don’t want to give me a chance. I doubt anybody will give me a chance. At 33, I’m not exactly a speedster, and I haven’t played in a year and a half.”

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Said Vachon: “My argument is, if I do not owe him, why pay him? If he cannot perform, we are not obligated to pay him.

“Now I’m not saying there is no way he’ll play this year. But he has not played in a year and a half. If we give him a spot, how long will he last? He has a history of back problems. This is not something that is cured. How is he going to react when the action starts?”

Pretty well, Laidlaw says.

“I have been going to Joe Horrigan, a soft-tissue specialist,” he said. “I am now pain-free. The last time, I tried to come back too quickly. I may never get hurt again or I might get hurt in a month or a day, but with (Horrigan’s) help, I have learned how to loosen up the muscles and get back in a few days.”

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As evidence, Laidlaw pointed with pride to his passing marks on the team physical, which includes a back examination.

“Those tests measure back strength,” team physician Steve Lombardo said. “How that translates onto the ice, the demands of skating and the trauma of contact is an unknown. Whether he could withstand the wear and tear of a season, no one can say. There are no miracles. He has shown a great deal of patience in coming back, but he would still be considered in the high-risk group.”

The Kings could trade Laidlaw if they could find an interested club, offer him a buyout at the required two-thirds of his salary or hold firm and see the matter through arbitration.

Laidlaw bristles at any suggestion that he is not sincere about his comeback.

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“I would love to play,” he said. “I’m not just here to collect my money. You never get it out of your blood. Nobody ever wants to quit. I’d like to turn the clock back, but I can’t. I’m happy to have played 11 years. I’d like to play another 11 years, but if not, it’s time to get on to something else.”

Would that something else be broadcasting?

“I don’t see that much of a future in it,” Laidlaw said. “I don’t know how much money I can make. What I’d really like to do is get into the business of representing other players (as an agent). I’ve had a little experience in that.”

Asked if he would like to represent players negotiating with the Kings, Laidlaw smiled.

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“I have no grudge against Rogie,” he said. “I think he’s a good man. I understand his position. He has his budget. We are just on different sides of the fence.”

King Notes

The Kings and the expansion San Jose Sharks skated to a 1-1 tie Tuesday night in an exhibition game at Fresno. Mike McHugh scored for San Jose (1-1-1) at 8:09 of the first period and Bob Kudelski tied it at 1:04 of the second period on a power-play goal for the Kings (0-1-1). King goaltender David Goverde stopped 11 shots, two of them in overtime. Jeff Hackett of San Jose stopped 12 shots, including one in the extra period. The teams meet again Thursday night at the Forum.

Center Wayne Gretzky has remained in the Toronto area since being injured there Saturday night in the Canada Cup finals. Tests revealed nothing more serious than the back spasms he has experienced being checked from behind by Gary Suter. Gretzky is expected to return home by the end of the week, but no decision has been made on his availability for exhibitions.

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